One of our children is obsessed with death. He is 6 years old and is constantly asking questions about it. He asks us when we will die, when bubby [Grandma] and zaidy [Grandpa] will die, etc. It used to be kind of cute when he planned for our demise, but recently he has been getting much more serious about it. He has been worrying more and has been waking up with "bad dreams" in middle of the night. We try to be reassuring, and that used to be enough, but now he is really struggling with it. Maybe we are just not explaining it to him properly? How does one teach children about death? He has not experienced the death of anyone close in the family so we are not sure where this is coming from. Why would he be so preoccupied with it?
Death is an ethereal subject. As thoughtful, contemplative adults, we have trouble wrapping our heads around the concept. Its surreal, religious, and/or spiritual nature typically leaves us with more questions than answers. For children, death can be a very vague and dramatic subject.
Young children tend to think in a black-and-white manner. When discussing an issue of importance to them, children don’t usually feel comfortable with partial responses or uncertainty. Often curious about death, children sometimes are simply interested in this new concept. When they begin grasping the idea that people who die no longer exist (as far as their understanding goes), children can become afraid and insecure. In addition to a general fear of the unknown, they can develop a specific fear of abandonment.
When your son initially asked you about death, he may well have simply been curious about what it was. If the answers that he received didn’t satisfy his curiosity—thereby putting the idea to bed—he may have begun feeling uncomfortable with his unclear perception of death. If he then began focusing on the idea that the people on whom he relies may not always be there for him, this could have made him feel unsafe and insecure.
To most young children, their parents are supermen, incapable of being seriously injured. Parents are the constant in their lives, making them feel safe and secure. The loss of this unquestioning sense of safety and security can cause children to become fearful of, and preoccupied with, death.
The specific cause and course of your son’s fear and anxiety may not be very important. Also, a clear understanding of death may not be what he requires. His questions and focus on the concept of death may lead you to believe that he just wants a good understanding of the meaning of death. However, we can’t even properly understand this concept ourselves. How could we possibly explain it to a young child in a satisfactory manner?
What is likely more important is making sure that your son regains his sense of safety and security. When your son discusses death, recognize that he may well be asking for your reassurance that you will always be there for him, and that he doesn’t need to be concerned with being abandoned. Although he may insist on some basic explanation of the meaning of death, your focus should be on rebuilding his sense of safety and security.
Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
Brooklyn, NY | Far Rockaway, NY
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317